CONCORD, N.H. - Mashed potatoes from a bag?
It sounded like a joke. I'm familiar with powdered mashed potatoes, those horrible flakes that reconstitute into a mush more akin to spackle than spuds. But bagged and ready to heat and eat?
It was true, a friend assured me. In fact, he feeds them to his family regularly. Making mashed potatoes from scratch is simply too much trouble, he said.
Too much trouble? You boil the potatoes until they are soft, then squish them. Done.
Yet I felt compelled to try the bagged variety. My friend is as meat-and-potatoes as it gets; if he thinks bagged are good enough to accompany the food that comes off his prized grill, maybe I should set aside my from-scratch bias.
No. He just has bad taste. And apparently is lazy.
I tried them and wasn't impressed. Remember the paste you used for art projects as a child? Dig in!
When freshly made mashed potatoes are so simple, and taste so much better, and are so much cheaper than prepared versions, why would people do anything else?
I asked a second friend for his thoughts on mashed potatoes, expecting a sympathetic response. He isn't afraid of hard work in the kitchen, and often tackles tasks I won't touch, including stock from scratch.
So I was dismayed when he said he never makes mashed potatoes except at the holidays. Too much work.
Have I been doing something wrong? I make mashed potatoes all the time, in part because they are so easy. And on winter nights what's more comforting than a heaping mound with melted butter and salt?
So I started researching. The slightly obsessed folks at Cook's Illustrated magazine of course have extensively tested the best way to make mashed potatoes.
Let's start with the most basic step - selecting potatoes. The Cook's Illustrated cooks say russets make the fluffiest mashed potatoes, though Yukon Golds have a nice buttery flavor.
As for cooking, conventional wisdom is to peel (or not) and cut the potatoes, submerge them in cold water and bring to a boil. But the experts found this makes tasteless taters. Instead, Cook's found it best to boil the potatoes whole.
Once the potatoes are tender, they add one stick of melted butter and a cup of warmed half-and-half. For vegan sensibilities, I've found soy margarine works well instead of butter.
Replacing the half-and-half is another matter. I've tried soy-based coffee creamers, but these tend to be too sweet. Plain soy milk tends to be too, well, plain. The winner for me is vanilla soy or rice milk, which is creamier.
As for the act of mashing, Cook's prefers a food mill or ricer, which looks like a giant garlic press.
Most home cooks don't have those tools, and Cook's says an old-fashioned masher works, too, though it won't make the smooth mashed potatoes they sought. That's OK. Chunky is best, anyway.
I also sometimes like to use my standing mixer. It is important to go easy on this technique, though. Mix until just mashed. Too long can make them gluey.
Speaking of which, the folks at Cook's explain why the bagged potatoes are so disgusting. Apparently, mashed potatoes stiffen as they cool and should be eaten immediately. Who knows how long those bagged batches have sat?
Fine. I concede making mashed potatoes from scratch is more work than opening a plastic bag, but it's hardly a lot of work. And the difference in the end makes it worth the effort.
Did my friends agree? The first one tried a recipe (similar to Cook's) from The Culinary Institute of America. His thoughts?
Still too much work.
"It took as long to get the wrapper off the butter... as it does to open the bag of potatoes," he said. "The next time we're going to have potatoes, what's going to happen? That's right, we're going to have frozen french fries."
My second friend. Too much trouble even to try making them.
I think I need new friends...
(Preparation 45 minutes)
2 pounds russet or Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup half-and-half, warmed
1½ teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Place the whole potatoes in a large saucepan with enough cold water to cover by about 1 inch. Bring to a boil over a high flame, then reduce to medium-low and simmer until the potatoes are just tender when pricked with a thin-bladed knife, about 20 to 30 minutes. Drain the potatoes.
Set a food mill or ricer over the saucepan. Spear each potato with a fork and use a paring knife to peel back the skin.
If using a food mill, cut the peeled potatoes into chunks and process them, in batches. If using a ricer, halve the potatoes and place cut side down in the ricer.
Use a wooden spoon to stir the melted butter into the potatoes. Gently whisk in the half-and-half, salt and pepper, to taste. Serve immediately.
(Recipe from Cook's Illustrated's "The New Best Recipe," 2004, $35)
(Preparation 35 minutes)
2¼ pounds russet potatoes, peeled (or not) and quartered
2 tablespoons salt
¾ cup butter
1 cup milk
1 cup heavy cream
1½ teaspoons salt, or to taste
¾ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or to taste
Place the potatoes and salt in a large saucepan of water with enough cold water to cover by about 2 inches. Bring the potatoes to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until cooked through, about 20 to 25 minutes.
While the potatoes are cooking, melt the butter in a small saucepan. Add the milk and cream. Keep warm.
Drain the potatoes and return them to the heat. Add the cream mixture and mash the potatoes using a potato masher, mixer or handheld blender. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
(Recipe from The Culinary Institute of America's "Gourmet Meals in Minutes," Lebhar-Friedman Books, 2004, $40.)